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Coventry - Some History

I have attempted here to chronicle a few of the significant events that have shaped our town. It is by no means a complete history of our city of Coventry; such an exercise would be well beyond the scope of any webpage, and of my limited knowledge, too. What follows is a series of brief passages covering various aspects, which either highlight some important chapters in Coventry's past, or are simply interesting enough to warrant a mention.
(Some of the references I've used are listed at the foot of the page, and can be quickly reached by using the relevant [Footnotes] links.)

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Coventry's beginnings in the Forest of Arden

Map of Arden and Feldon In ancient times, much of the land traditionally covered by Warwickshire was made up of two main areas known as Arden and Feldon. The River Avon formed the boundary between the two, running from north-east to south-west.
It was near the eastern reaches of the forest of Arden where a settlement formed which was to become Coventry. Whereas most of the Feldon area to the south east was open countryside which was readily farmable, the dense clay soil of Arden was relatively hostile to crop growing but was, however, a suitable condition for oak trees of which much of the forest comprised.

From necessity, many of the hamlets that developed in the Forest of Arden were created in clearings, either man-made or perhaps natural openings in the woods. The old English word for a clearing was "lea", and derivatives of this include leah, ley and leigh, so we can see how many of the settlements with which we're familiar today gained their names. Examples are: Keresley, Henley, Corley, Whoberley, Binley, Allesley, Fillongley, plus many others. The name Henley-in-Arden in fact contains a double reference to its ancient roots. [Footnote 1]

The area from which Coventry grew did, however, contain a particularly good resource.... water. The Sherbourne was much larger in Saxon times, and a large lake called Babbu Lacu filled much of the low lying land along the northern edge of the hamlet. Therefore, a supply of fish and drinking water was always plentiful, and the land was also more easily defended in times of trouble. The only remnant of the lake is now a small pool - the Swanswell. [Footnote 2]
With the forest being mostly unsuitable for the cultivation of crops, the Saxon settlers in this area concentrated on cattle and sheep, and so it was this which would eventually lead to Coventry's great wealth in the middle ages with its wool industry.

Although Coventry's documented history stretches back at least a thousand years, its true beginnings are still shrouded in mystery. There is good reason to suggest that the first settlement here grew around a Saxon nunnery, which had been founded around 700 AD by St. Osburga, and which stood in the vicinity of St. Mary's Priory. [Footnote 3]

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Origin of the name

Something that may never be proven, is the origin of our city's name. The theory that some historians subscribe to, is that Coventry has evolved from the name Cofantreo. It's supposed that an early settler in the area by the name of Cofa, marked his boundary with a tree, (not an uncommon thing to do in Saxon times) hence the name "Cofantreo" which is thought to have meant "Cofa's tree". [Footnote 4]
Although, at first, the 'n' in the middle of the Cofa-n-treo appears out of place, I am grateful to researcher Rob MacDonald for informing me of the Old English usage of an 'n' in the genitive case, (similar to the modern possessive 's) therefore implying that the tree belonged to Cofa. However, with reference to it first seen in 1053, Cofantreo was not the first spelling of the town's name. Neither is there any firm evidence that "Cofa" was ever a name used by the Saxons, but despite the lack of any compelling evidence, this remains the preferred origin by many.
The earliest reference to our settlement was actually Couaentree. Information from David McGrory's book "A History of Coventry" tells us that the first part of the word, Couaen (and sometimes spelt "Cune") refers to a meeting place of waters. The river Sherbourne was thought to have originally been named the Cune, and used to meet with Radford Brook where they flowed into the Mill Dam, once part of the larger Bablake, so Couaentree may have referred to the "settlement at the place where the waters met". [Footnote 5]

The name was spelt in many different ways during the first few centuries, and variations include the following:
Couaentree, Couentre, Coventria, Cofentreo, Cofantreo, Cofentreium, Coventrev & Couintre.
In the latter few centuries, spellings used have been;
Covintry, Covingtre, Coventrey & Coventre before evolving into what we are familiar with today.

Please note; Old English didn't use the letter v, so therefore in the early spellings where a letter u was used, it might have been, in fact, pronounced as a v, and wouldn't have sounded as alien as it looks when printed. Similarly, the letter f was pronounced v by the Saxons, therefore, for instance, Cofentreo would have been pronounced Coventreo. (This usage is still commonplace today - think about the word 'of '.)
Guildhall There are many other theories about the reason for the name too, holding varying levels of credence. Some legends associate the town with the Celtic-Roman water goddess, Coventina, but perhaps a leading contender for the original meaning is Coventre derived from the words "Coven", meaning "Convent" and "tre", a celtic word meaning "settlement" or "town", giving rise to "Convent Town". [Footnote 6] This was certainly the view taken in the 18th century as engraved on the official 1749 survey map, and many leading historians over the last few centuries have also held this opinion. Bearing in mind the town's probable origin - a settlement surrounding an early Saxon abbey - this argument is my personal favourite, too.
With so many feasible theories about the name, I imagine that the discussion will continue for some time....

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The Coventry Coat of Arms and Motto

Coat of Arms in 1900
Coventry's Coat of Arms around 1900. This design was changed after WW2.
Why do we have an elephant and castle on our coat of arms? And what is the meaning of our motto, Camera Principis? These appear to be rather common questions - but as usual with Coventry's history, the answer is far from straight forward!
In simplistic terms, the elephant represents strength; the ability to carry a castle on its back. Whether the castle was meant to be Coventry's castle or not isn't clear. This isn't the only explanation though; Historian, Mary Dormer Harris, tells us that the elephant is also associated with ancient legends whereby it killed a dragon while defending its young. Early Coventry seals also used to contain a tree in the background, and another legend tells of elephants sleeping while standing against a tree. All this is only supposition, however. [Footnote 7]
Current Coat of Arms
In 1959 the elephant and castle gained a pair of 'supporters'.
Since at least early medieval times Coventry's Armorial Bearings, as they are correctly called, have also had a cat-a-mountain as the crest; a creature representing vigilance. Influenced by the events of the second world war, in 1959 the coat of arms was enhanced by two supporters; the Black Eagle of Leofric on the left, and the Phoenix on the right - representing the ancient town and Coventry's rise from the ashes respectively.

Camera Principis

Coventry's motto simply translates as "The Prince's Chamber". This is not a reference to the room of the same name in the guildhall, but the fact that the City of Coventry was regarded as the 'chamber' of Edward, the Black Prince. When in Coventry, Edward was based at Cheylesmore Manor, which was passed to him by his grandmother, Queen Isabella, widow of King Edward II, and mother to Edward III. See below.

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Leofric and Godiva

It really cannot be overstated just how much the early development of Coventry owed to the most famous couple ever to be associated with the town; Earl Leofric and his wife, Lady Godiva.
The name Godiva with which we're all now familiar was not her original name, however. Her given name was Godgifu, (pronounced Godgivu) meaning 'God's gift', and known to be a popular name at that time. Like many things, names go out of fashion, and by the time she was being written about centuries later, the pronunciation had been lost, and Godiva became the corrupted form that persisted. She never held the official title of 'Lady' either - that was also a fabrication of later years, although she was referred to by many as 'Countess Godiva'.
Priory Row Even before marrying Leofric, Godgifu was a woman of high status, and owned much land. Her alliance to Leofric, however, made them an extremely wealthy couple who endowed many religious houses with riches, particularly the monastery in Coventry which was described by Florence of Worcester as being "...so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession." [Footnote 8]
Leofric was one of the three most powerful men in the country, reporting directly to the king. It was King Cnut who appointed him Earl the year after coming to the throne in 1016, and for forty years Leofric's influence and power grew until he died in 1057. Godgifu died ten years later - by then the most powerful lady landowner in England.

A royal charter by Edward the Confessor, now known to be a forgery, states that in 1043 Leofric and Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery for twenty four monks. This was later to become the priory and cathedral of St. Mary's. Although not original, there is no reason to fully doubt the charter's contents; there have always been many reasons why, in later years, somebody (for instance the prior in this case) might wish to forge or amend such a document. Often it might have been for the purpose of laying claim to land or property which doesn't belong to them, but sometimes it could be simply to replace a lost document, and so reinforce a justified claim of ownership.
Evidence suggests that St. Mary's might have been in existence by 1022 when a Coventry church was presented with the arm of St. Augustine, and if this is true, then Leofric and Godiva's contribution may have been to 'endow' the monastery, not actually 'found' it. Many riches were bestowed upon the church, and William of Malmesbury was recorded as saying; "It was enriched and beautified with so much gold and silver that the walls seemed too narrow to contain it". [Footnote 9]
Godiva Lady Godiva is remembered principally nowadays of course, for her naked ride through the town on horseback, allegedly in an attempt to persuade her husband to lower the taxes that were crippling the poor citizens of Coventry. It is a wonderful story that has spanned many centuries (and lost nothing in the telling!) but for various reasons it is unlikely that such an event ever happened at all. Coventry, at that time, was little more than a hamlet, and the ride would have been very short indeed. It was also not a contemporary tale - around 120 years had elapsed since the alleged ride before it was written about in a book called "Flores Historiarum" (meaning "Flowers of History") by Roger of Wendover from St. Albans - a man apparently not known for his accurate historical recording! The story has however, remained part of the city's legend that will keep people talking about Coventry for as long as the place exists.
Records state that Leofric was buried in a porch of the abbey in Coventry, but despite early accounts stating that Godiva was also buried here, there is, in fact, no real evidence to suggest that she ever used Coventry as her home, and it is recorded that her final resting place was Evesham Abbey, alongside Prior Aefic, her friend and Father Confessor. [Footnote 10]

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The Seat of the Bishop

A synod in 1075 by the ecclesiastical Council of London decreed (amongst many other things) that all Bishops seats should, if not already, be relocated in larger, wealthier towns. Thus, in that year, Bishop Peter moved the Mercian see from the then village of Lichfield, to the already substantial town of Chester.
Bluecoat School His successor was the infamous and greedy Robert de Limesey whose influence there was diminished by the presence of the Earls of Chester. Evidence in the form of a letter from Archbishop Lanfranc shows that Limesey wished to move from Chester before 1089, and the Midlands turned out to be the preferred choice. He transferred his see to Coventry around 1095, and Papal authorisation for this came in 1102 which turned the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary into a priory and cathedral. [Footnote 11]

This choice of Coventry over Lichfield forms part of an age old mystery. The returns from the Domesday Survey in 1086 suggest that Coventry was little more than a village, with perhaps no more than 350 inhabitants.... so why only a decade or so later was our town's status considered worthy of the seat of a Bishop? The true answer might never be found, but it has been suggested that the answer could lie in the simple fact that the Domesday Survey was, in places, notoriously inaccurate. The commissioners with the enormous task of surveying the country often counted the agricultural estates but appeared uncertain of how to treat urban communities. After all, the prime reason for the survey was to establish wealth - and this usually meant livestock and farmland - so residential dwellings and urban areas were more difficult to assess.
It is a fact that many known towns were omitted, either completely or in part, from the Domesday book, so it is feasible that Coventry was neglected in the same way, with only the agriculturally based properties taken into account. Historians generally estimate that, in all probability, Coventry was home to around 1,000 people by 1086.
Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, Godiva and Leofric's influence had sufficiently raised the settlement's profile. With its newly found fame, the town was considered important enough for the Bishop to move here, and Coventry was to grow enormously in wealth and size over the next three centuries.

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Coventry Castle

That a castle ever existed in Coventry is something not many people realise nowadays. In fact, for many years, historians haven't been able to completely agree on the castle's exact whereabouts - and in one or two cases - its very existence.
Map showing the possible site of Coventry's castle
However, too many documents regarding the castle exist for there to be any doubt that a castle once stood in the centre of Coventry. Papers exist referring to the "broad gate of my castle", a charter prohibiting constables to bring burghers into the castle to plea their causes, and documents mentioning items like the 'castle bakehouse' (castelbachous), and "the church of St. Michael's in the Bailey" - plus many other references. What's really in question is its design and the layout of the grounds.

One clue, which reveals the possible plot area of the castle grounds at one point in time, is the discovery of a defensive ditch. [Footnote 12] The small map on the right shows in red the probable route taken - only a few short segments of the ditch have been excavated, so parts of the route are conjecture. Also, the medieval streets are only included here for reference - most would not yet have been in existence during the life of the castle. At some point, the ditch was re-routed to run past the north edge of what later was to become the huge tower of St. Michael's (numbered '1' on the map) and through the centre of the then unbuilt church. The original smaller chapel of St. Michael's would have stood within the bailey of the castle grounds.

David McGrory, in his book "A History of Coventry", tells us much about the probable lifetime of our castle, and from this we can glean that the period during which the castle was in use appears to be extremely short. It was built by Ranulf Gernons, Earl of Chester, around 1137 to 1140 - almost certainly using enforced labour from the local population. This was at the time of the 'Barons Wars' during the reign of King Stephen, and Ranulf held the castle against the king. Ranulf's castle had barely been finished, when in 1143 it was challenged by Earl Marmion, who used the nearby Priory as his fort. More details about this on the St. Mary's Priory page.

Ranulf was succeeded as earl by his son, Hugh II, who it appears was also rebellious, and in 1173 held Coventry's castle against the king - this time King Henry II. Henry sent a strong force to Coventry - and the rebellion, and almost certainly the castle, was destroyed.

It seems that from this date the remains of the castle were allowed to decay. Although many references to it would still be made, it would never again be used in battle. The appropriately named 'Earl Street' would soon be built through the grounds from west to east, and the Guildhall (numbered '3' on the map) built within the castle grounds, possibly utilising some of the old foundations. On the back of the guildhall is a wedge-shaped three storey (once four) tower, known as Caesar's Tower. This tower, along with another similar one mirroring it, might feasibly have been an entrance to the castle - which could form a funnelled 'killing zone' for entering intruders.

One of the last mentions of Coventry's castle was in 1569. On this occasion it was suggested by Queen Elizabeth I that Mary, Queen of Scots be held somewhere secure such as Coventry castle. However, it was by that time too decayed for such an event. Mary was first held at the Bull Inn, Smithford Street, then moved to the Mayoresses Parlour in St. Mary's Guildhall. [Footnote 13]

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A Town of Two Halves?

There has been much debate in the last century or so about the division of Coventry into the "Prior's half" and the "Earl's Half". That these two areas existed has been well documented, but until the middle of the twentieth century it was believed that our town was totally split, and had separate government for each half until incorporation in 1345.
The common belief until recent decades was that the 1345 Charter of Incorporation followed by the Tripartite Indenture ten years later were brought about to unite our city. However, in the light of documentation now available, and the careful study of existing charters, it appears more likely that Coventry was already ruled as one town before that time. The prime function of Coventry's incorporation therefore, was not to unite the town, but to prevent it from splitting. [Footnote 14]
Old map logo
Evidence for Coventry being governed "as one" comes in various forms at different times. The southern side of the town had until 1250 been controlled by the Earls of Chester. The earl at this time was Roger de Mold who was often referred to in older documents as "Roger de Montalt". Roger de Mold was the last in a long line of Earls, and had only gained this position by marrying Cecily, sister of Hugh, Earl of Chester. In 1250 he sold his wife's Coventry rights and estates to the Prior in exchange for a pension of £100 and 10 marks per annum. So for the next 95 years the town was controlled by a single 'land lord'; - the Prior. [Footnote 15]

Before this time the harmony between the two halves is less clear. There certainly appears to have been a disparity in the general day to day living and working practices - the Earl's tenants appearing to be freer to trade independently, and seemingly more 'capitalist', and the Priors tenants in the north apparently being bound to work for the benefit of the Priory but having other privileges like freedom of the market at the Priory gates. These differences, however, only describe the town as having two landlords with differing rules, and do not show that the town was split. County rulings and royal charters were issued in the twelfth century which refer either to just "the men of Coventry" without qualification, or equally to both Earl's and Prior's parts of the town. A mint is documented, the proceeds and running of which appears to be shared between Earl and Prior, and also, there appears to have been only one "portmanmoot" which was an early type of court that administered medieval justice to men of both halves.
Domestic rivalry and competition there might have been, but Coventry moved forward, and due to the energy of its people, prospered in its own single minded way!

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Coventry as a City

The relocation of the Bishop to this town was a major step towards Coventry's growing importance. The next stage of huge significance came in 1182 with the granting of a Royal Charter. King Henry II confirmed liberties that had been granted by Earl Ranulf II some time between 1129 and 1153, and it allowed many new things which would ultimately allow Coventry to grow in prosperity. The four main areas of town life affected were: Coventry scene The charter was clearly aimed at encouraging land ownership, enterprise, self governance and trade. This fourth point indeed made Coventry a very attractive place for travelling tradesmen to locate and do business.... anyone setting up business here was to be granted two years free of tax or charges. Initially expensive, this was a masterstroke in future thinking.
The second point also deserves further explanation. As with many facets of life, people usually wish to further themselves by looking to those already better established. Earlier in its own history, Lincoln had earned rights and laws that London already had in place. Now Lincoln was setting the precedent for Coventry to follow, and in turn, Nottingham and Winchester, amongst others, would look to Coventry as their model. [Footnote 16]

In 1330, the second woman to have enormous influence over events in Coventry came onto the scene. It was in this year that the remaining rights of the Earls of Chester passed into the hands of Queen Isabella, the widow of King Edward II, who she'd had murdered in 1327. Isabella had been banished by her son, Edward III, who was to rule England strongly for fifty years, but now from Cheylesmore Manor, she had a new interest - the control of the former Earl's half of Coventry.
As explained above in A Town of Two Halves", since 1250 Coventry had remained under the singular control of the Prior. During this time of the Prior's seignority, the more commercially enlightened men of the southern half of the town were constantly in bitter dispute with their oppressive overlord. Obviously very upset that Roger de Mold had lost much of the Earl's power in Coventry, Isabella used her influence as Queen Mother to fight back against the Prior at every opportunity in an attempt to gain increased control of the town. She broke many written agreements, and made herself extremely unpopular with the churchmen, but the free men of Coventry had a new champion, and it only took Isabella fifteen years for the most significant stage in Coventry's development to occur....

On the 20th January 1345 Coventry's status was confirmed by the granting of a Royal "Charter of Incorporation" by King Edward III. It was supposedly the first municipal charter of its kind in England, and it meant that Coventry could now have its own Council which could elect its own Mayor. Coventry's first Mayor was John Ward, however, his election did not occur until 1348.

We now officially had a city. This act would have come as a fatal blow for the Prior and his monastery because the Charter of Incorporation effectively excluded their involvement with the more powerful Earl's half of the town. A decade later, with another agreement called the "Tripartite Indenture" in 1355, the Prior's and Earl's territories came under the singular control of the Corporation. After centuries of influence, the Prior was no longer a significant power in Coventry.

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Coventry as a County

By medieval times, due largely to a thriving textile and weaving trade, Coventry had become the fourth largest and possibly the best defended city in England, only smaller in population and wealth than York, Bristol and, of course, London. Our city was, in effect, the 'capital' of the Midlands.
During 1450, Coventry had become a favoured sanctuary for the Lancastrian King Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou. The Royals fled here in June after an uprising by 50,000 men of Kent. In 1451, King Henry VI granted Coventry along with its surrounding hamlets the elevated status of County, and so, from the 6th December 1451 there existed the "County of the City of Coventry" which would carry this status for nearly four centuries. [Footnote 17]
The settlements around the city forming the county were:
Radford, Keresley, Foleshill, Exhall, Ansty, Shilton, Caludon, Wyken, Henley, Wood-end, Stoke, Biggin, Whitley, Pinley, Asthill, Harnall, Horwell & Whoberley, plus parts of Walsgrave-on-Sowe & Styvechale. [Footnote 18]
With the boundary act of 1842 (during the reign of Queen Victoria) Coventry reverted back to being just a city again within the County of Warwickshire.
For many years the people of the outlying areas forming Coventry's county had been unhappy with their situation. Compared with their Warwickshire counterparts they were paying much higher rates to Coventry Corporation - and yet they also had fewer rights, for instance, not being allowed to elect Members of Parliament. The Municipal Reform Bill in 1835 spelled the end for our county status and also for the various powers and privileges held by the Craft Guilds for many years, and so seven years later, new Town Councils took over the running of each municipality around England. [Footnote 19] Warwickshire

In 1974, of course, our long association with Warwickshire also came to an end after a massive Government reorganisation of all counties. Many local people feel that Warwickshire is still our rightful home, and when one looks at a political map showing county boundaries, Coventry stands out like a sore thumb from its current position in the West Midlands, which has been our administrative county since the 1974 restructuring. Apart from a narrow strip to our west, Coventry is surrounded on 80% of its periphery by lovely Warwickshire countryside. Perhaps one day we will revert back to the county where we belong.

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Coventry the 'Capital City'!

Further to the Royal family's problems of 1450, things were to get worse. King Henry VI had become prone to periods of mental illness, and in 1455 suffered a second bout, lasting into 1456. It was perceived that the King's power, and indeed his life, might be in danger, and so Queen Margaret, now effectively in charge, moved the Royal Court to Coventry, known by many as her "secret harbour". In August 1456 at St. Mary's Guildhall, Coventry's Mayor and 91 councillors met, and pledged money and allegiance to the Lancastrian cause in the ongoing War of the Roses.

Guildhall Window Coventry was now the seat of government, and it is said that Margaret surrounded herself with all the trappings of luxury and culture with which she had become familiar in their London household. For all the prestige that this may have brought on our city, providing home to the Royal Court was a tremendous strain on local resources, and the ordinary people of Coventry must have wondered what advantage was being gained by our sudden fame and hospitality towards the Royals.

The final parliamentary meeting to be held in Coventry occurred in December 1459 as events were turning for the worse between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. In early 1461, Henry's reign was at an end when Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, installed Edward IV onto the throne of England. Although Henry VI was to have another brief spell as king between 1469 and 1471, (again, with help from Richard Neville, known as "Warwick the Kingmaker") Edward IV's return for the next twelve years spelled the end for Lancastrian rule. [Footnote 20]
This was not, however, the first time that Coventry had hosted the nation's parliament. In 1404 King Henry IV summoned parliament to be held at St. Mary's Priory - an event which became known as the "Parliamentum Indoctorum" (or "Unlearned Parliament"), so called because all lawyers, who were deemed to be troublesome (or, more to the point, too familiar with the law), were excluded from the meeting.

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The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Whilst most people are familiar with the destruction that the bombing by the Luftwaffe inflicted upon Coventry in World War Two, fewer will be aware that Coventry was uniquely unlucky in being the only city to lose its cathedral church in this manner. However, it's likely that fewer still will realise that our city has suffered a similar fate twice in its history!

The 16th century dissolution of the monasteries at the hands of King Henry VIII had every bit as devastating an effect on Coventry as Adolf Hitler's reign of terror in the mid 20th century. Thinly disguised as a method of reducing the enormous power that the church, and in particular the monasteries, held across the land, Henry slowly began to dissolve the age old institutions. The real reason that appears to prevail, however, was greed.
In 1536, he ordered his Vicar-General, Thomas Cromwell, to assess all monasteries across England with a view towards suppressing those with an annual income of less than £200 per year. The monies and treasures gained were not to go to charitable institutions, as had been presumed by the Priors, but to bolster the King's coffers. The ordinary townsfolk had been softened up by the King who promised that the income from the dissolution would mean no more taxes would be asked of them.
Not completely satisfied with the return from the first round of suppression, in 1538 Henry ordered that the remaining monasteries be dissolved.
Greyfriars spire
The first monasteries in Coventry to fall were Whitefriars and Greyfriars; the Franciscan monks of the latter finally surrendered on the 5th October 1538. These two institutions had very modest incomes of just a few pounds per year.
In 1538, the order was given to dissolve the much larger Benedictine priory and cathedral of St. Mary's. Coventry's Bishop, Roland Lee and the Prior of the church, Thomas Camswell, pleaded for it to be saved, suggesting that it could be used by the Church of England but their pleas were unsuccessful, perhaps partly because two substantial parish churches lay nearby, but certainly due to the fact that Coventry was a shared diocese with Lichfield and two cathedrals would be an unnecessary luxury. The choice made by Henry VIII was not a difficult one; he particularly disliked monks, and Lichfield was secular and conformed more with the king's wishes. The Coventry abbey was officially taken by the Crown on the 15th January 1539, and that same year the smaller St. Anne's Charterhouse on the London Road also fell. [Footnote 21]

The effect of the dissolution on Coventry was enormous. The Priory had been by far the single largest creator of industry in the town, and this is supported by the fact that after the event the population fell from around 7,000 to somewhere in the region of 3,000. The general effect of the suppression around the country was also testimony to the false economy made by Henry VIII. The money raised for the Crown by the dissolution turned out to be only a small fraction of the income generated by the church through its monastic activities.

Priory Tower As for the former priory itself, records indicate that it remained largely untouched for the first six years. It can be assumed that during this period King Henry VIII robbed it of all valuables, but in 1545 all attempts to retain the church had been exhausted, and St. Mary's was eventually purchased by John Hales, as was Whitefriars monastery, which became his personal residence. The cathedral priory, however, was systematically stripped of all materials that could be sold for profit. After 1572, when Hales died, the remaining structure returned to local authority ownership, whereby all that remained to be done was to sell the remnants as building materials. [Footnote 22] Portions of the structure survived intact for several decades, and notably the north west tower was the largest part still standing three centuries later. In 1856-57, Blue Coat School was enlarged and incorporated this tower into its foundations. All this has been lovingly restored and is open for public viewing at the side of Priory Gardens, including a purpose built Visitor Centre which proudly displays the archaeological gems salvaged from the buried ruins of St. Mary's priory and cathedral.

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"Sent to Coventry"

The old saying "sent to Coventry" is a frequently quoted phrase, meaning to be completely ignored or snubbed by everyone, yet few who use it are aware of its origin. As with much historical 'storytelling', the true origin is blurred in the mists of time, but here are some possible reasons for its usage: -

St. John's
By far the most popularly believed reason is the story about the Civil War. Around 1648 Oliver Cromwell sent many Scottish Royalist prisoners (who had been fighting for Charles I) to be imprisoned in St. Johns Church in Fleet Street. While exercising in the streets, it was said that the soldiers were completely ostracised by the strongly parliamentarian Coventry folk, hence, people who have been shunned in that way were said to have been "sent to Coventry".

It has also been suggested that because Coventry was a place used to carry out executions (for example, the so called 'heretics' brought here to be burned in the 16th century), another theory is that to be "sent to Coventry" had far more serious connotations. Certainly those poor souls would never have been spoken to again!

In the light of information from David McGrory, severe doubt can be cast upon both of the above reasons. The story based in the Civil War might be nearer to the mark, but as with the myth of Godiva's ride, that tale was not related until a century after it had apparently happened. There is reason to believe, however, that the true origin does lie with the soldiers based here in the 17th century. For obvious reasons, it was not popular with the locals for rowdy and possibly ill-disciplined troops to be billeted here, and young girls would probably have been forbidden to mix with the soldiery. Therefore, it is suggested that the soldiers felt their presence here was unwelcome, giving rise to them feeling unhappy to be "sent to Coventry".

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For those of you interested in following this up with some of your own research, it may be worth taking a look at the Victoria County History of the County of Warwick: Volume VIII (The City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick). To make life easier, this volume has been digitised and published online by "British History Online". These links will take you directly to the relevant Coventry page and their Home page, respectively.

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  1. Victoria County History of Warwickshire 1969. (VCH)
  2. The City of Coventry, Images from the Past - David McGrory - 1996
  3. Anglo Saxon Coventry and its Churches - Steven Bassett - 2001
  4. Coventry's Heritage - Levi Fox - 1957 (2nd Edition)
  5. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  6. The History & Antiquities of Warwickshire - Sir William Dugdale et al. - 1817
  7. Mary Dormer Harris, The Life and Works of a Warwickshire Historian - Jean Field - 2002
  8. Lady Godiva - Daniel Donoghue - 2003
  9. The History & Antiquities of Warwickshire - Sir William Dugdale et al. - 1817
  10. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  11. The Early Records of Medieval Coventry - Peter Coss - 1986
  12. Victoria County History of Warwickshire 1969. (VCH)
  13. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  14. The Early History of Coventry, Dugdale Society Occasional Paper No. 24 - R. H. C. Davis - 1976
  15. Life in an Old English Town - Mary Dormer Harris - 1898
  16. Six Hundred Years of Municipal Life - Frederick Smith B.A. F.G.S. - 1945
  17. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  18. The Illustrated History of Coventry's Suburbs - David McGrory - 2003
  19. Six Hundred Years of Municipal Life - Frederick Smith B.A. F.G.S. - 1945
  20. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  21. A History of Coventry - David McGrory - 2003
  22. The Dissolution of St. Mary's Priory - Professor J. J. Scarisbrick - 1993 (A paper included in "Coventry's First Cathedral", edited by George Demidowicz)
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